El Dorado – The Explorers

El Dorado

The Explorers

Francisco de Orellana- First European to Explore the Amazon River Basin

By Robert Drynan


Francisco de Orellana took the side of Francisco Pizarro in the civil war with Diego de Almagro and the young soldier became one of his cousin’s favored leaders. He founded the city of Guayaquil (Ecuador), was made its governor and settled down to enjoy the wealth he had acquired. During his campaigns to support the consolidation of the conquest of Perú, Orellana learned much of the American lands, and he demonstrated a rare aptitude, acquiring knowledge of several Amerindian languages.

Gonzalo Pizarro, Governor of Quito, appealed to Orellana to join an expedition in 1541 to the Tierra de la Canela, (Land of Cinnamon, a spice with a value almost equal to that of gold), and of course, follow rumors of a city of Gold. El Dorado reemerged in the iconology of the Spanish Conquest. Restless, Orellana recruited his own forces and marched to join Gonzalo with twenty men armed with muskets, and crossbows. Gonzalo had already departed Quito leaving instructions for Orellana to follow him down the Coca River to the Napo. The expedition, composed of two hundred Spanish infantry and horsemen supported by four thousand Indians, brought with it llamas for pack animals, trained attack dogs, a herd of pigs and other supplies.

The Spanish soldiers of the Conquista were accustomed to warfare in more densely populated Europe. On campaign military formations in Europe foraged for their needs as they marched across the countryside. As aware as they became of the scarcity of food and forage, they never really accounted for the vastness of the continent they had invaded nor anticipated their ignorance of natural foods in tropical climes. Logistical planning proved sadly insufficient to meet the requirements of even small expeditions and led to terrible attrition due to disease and starvation. The style of warfare of the Amerinds, sniping and ambush, did not fit into their concept of battle in fixed formations. They learned to adapt, but the price of their education was high.

Crossing the Andes into the humidity of the dense rain forest, experiencing torrential rains, Indian attacks using poisoned arrows, biting insects and poisonous snakes, exhaustion and tropical disease, killed most of the Gonzalo Pizarro’s force at the early outset. Orellana caught up with the expedition before it reached the Napo where Gonzalo had halted to build a thirty-three foot vessel, which he named the San Pedro. Gonzalo had not anticipated the amount of supplies needed by the expedition and had assumed they could forage for food as they went. The rainforest did not render the forage needed, so Orellana, still fresh from his journey and better prepared, on December 26, 1541 set out down the Coca to forage for additional supplies.  

The steeply descending stream rushed at a dizzying pace, so swiftly that Orellana was unable to locate food or even to determine where the river carried them. Eventually, the party of fifty-seven Spaniards landed at the confluence of the Coca and Napo rivers (today, the site of an Ecuadorian city named for Orellana) and the doughty thirty-one year old soldier determined that it would be impossible to return to where Gonzalo Pizarro’s expedition waited. In any case Pizarro, despairing of Orellana’s return, withdrew to Quito, arriving with only 80 members of the force with which he had begun his venture.

Where the Napo joined the Río Grande or Great River as they named it, Orellana halted to build a second, larger vessel, naming it La Victoria and dividing his force between the two vessels decided to continue his explorations. The Dominican friar, Gaspar de Carvajal, who chronicled their adventures, reported their entry into the Río Grande on 12 February 1542. On June 3rd 1542 the vessels passed by a great tributary to the river that Orellana named the Río Negro.

Carvajal recorded several battles with warlike tribes during their journey, the most notable was a fierce ambush launched on the 25th of June 1542 by the Icamiabas. Later Orellana described them to the Spanish king as very tall white women: naked and armed only with bows and arrows. Their queen, Conori, was said to possess great wealth. Iinspired by Orellana’s description of the battle and by the Greek legend, the Spanish king christened the river the Amazonas.  map amazonas

Carvajal’s journal describes densely populated settlements crowded along the banks of the Amazon below the confluence with the Río Negro. He reported walled cities, one of which stretched fifteen leagues along the banks of the river and he noted the practice of intensive high-yielding agriculture. Subsequent explorations of the river found no such civilization and discredited the narratives of Orellana and Carvajal as inventions to impress the Spanish king. Current research acquits both of men of the accused exaggeration.

 On 26 August 1542 the adventurers reached the Atlantic Ocean, ending their 4,000 mile river journey. They set sail northward along the Brazilian coast. The San Pedro and the Victoria became separated but eventually arrived two days apart at the island settlement of Nueva Cádiz, the present day island of Cubagua off the coast of Eastern Venezuela.  Cubagua, a barren islet lacking in fresh water, was renowned for its rich pearl beds.

From Cubagua Orellana took passage to Santo Domingo and on to Spain to petition the king for the governorship over the lands he had claimed for Spain. He first landed in Portugal where the king offered to sponsor his return to the Amazon under the Portuguese flag. According to the Treaty of Tordesillas, sponsored by Pope Nicolas VI to avoid conflict between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies, the majority of the Amazon River would be Spanish, but the mouth of the river would be controlled by Portugal. The Portuguese king, upon discovering that he had negotiated away to Spain most of the land of the new continent, wanted to lay claim to the interior lands drained by the great river. Orellana rejected the proposition and continued on to Valladolid where after several months of negotiations, King Charles I appointed him governor of the Amazon region on February 18, 1544. The charter obligated Orellana to form a company to further explore and settle the regions he had discovered, founding two cities: one in the mouth of the river and another in the interior of the basin.

In Seville Orellana married Ana de Ayala, who returned with him to America.  He set forth on 11 May 1545 with 300 men and 100 horses. Of the four vessels of the expedition only one succeeded in reaching the mouth of the Amazon just before Christmas 1545. They built a river boat and explored 500 km of the Amazon delta. In November of 1546 natives ambushed the expedition and Francisco de Orellana was killed. Only 44 of the original 300 men survived to be rescued.  His wife remarried and lived out her life in Panamá.


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